Recent hirings offer Acta, McGwire shots at redemption

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

During perhaps the busiest time in the sports calendar, two mostly overshadowed baseball hires in the past week are worthy of attention.

The first is Manny Acta being named manager of the Cleveland Indians. If Acta succeeds in Cleveland, plenty of people no doubt will say the Washington Nationals made a mistake when they fired him in July. They'll be wrong. Acta is a bright young manager who almost certainly has a serious future, but the Nationals had no choice. They were in a position no team wants to be in: having to make a change for the sake of change.

The Nationals' mediocre starting pitching and their awful bullpen weren't Acta's fault. Their horrific defense was, at least to some degree: Basics and hustle can be taught; range and a good arm can't be. The Nationals failed mentally in the field as often as they failed physically, and Acta's calm demeanor probably wasn't right for a team that continued to make fundamental mistakes.

Plenty of managers have failed in their first job before finding success. When Casey Stengel was managing the Boston Braves, he was hit by a taxi during the 1943 season. A local columnist suggested naming the cab driver as the team's MVP. Everyone knows what happened to Stengel when he got to New York in 1949.

The same was true of Joe Torre, who was fired in Atlanta and St. Louis and referred to as "Clueless Joe," by one of the New York tabloids when he was hired to manage the Yankees in 1996. He has won four world championships since then and been in postseason 14 straight years with two teams.

Tony LaRussa got fired in Chicago before becoming a genius in Oakland. Lou Piniella got fired in New York, then won a world championship his first season in Cincinnati.

The list goes on.

Certainly if you know Acta, you want to see him succeed in Cleveland. He is the epitome of a gentleman, which can be a weakness as a coach or manager, and never tried to spread blame for his team's failings. Too often in sports nowadays, the coach or manager takes the fall for the blunders of ownership or management.

Acta is taking over for Eric Wedge, who had the Indians one win from the World Series two years ago and got fired less than two years later. One wonders if Wedge might have been a little better manager in 2009 if CC Sabathia had trotted to the mound every fifth day or if Cliff Lee hadn't been traded later in the season. Those, of course, were payroll decisions that too many teams in baseball are forced to make.

Acta was a victim of that just as Wedge was a victim in Cleveland. One can only hope that the Indians spend enough to give Acta a chance to succeed, and that the Nationals do the same with their new manager, whoever it may be. (The vote here goes to Don Mattingly for whatever that's worth -- great guy who can work with players on both hitting and defense who has learned a lot sitting next to Torre the last few years.)

The second recent baseball hire worth discussing, for entirely different reasons, is the St. Louis Cardinals' new hitting coach: Mark McGwire. McGwire was the poster boy, along with Sammy Sosa, of baseball's revival in 1998, when he hit 70 home runs to blow away Roger Maris's season record of 61. Seven years later, McGwire became the poster boy for baseball's steroids era when he sat before Congress and said repeatedly, "I'm not here to discuss the past," taking the Fifth Amendment for all intents and purposes.

McGwire certainly wasn't alone that day. Rafael Palmeiro pointed a finger and said he had never taken steroids a few months before testing positive. The loquacious Sosa forgot how to speak English, and Curt Schilling blamed everyone but Curt Schilling for the steroid problem.

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